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Call. Mute. Learn. Repeat.

We had eight students at home who needed to call into conferences simultaneously

T his house needs many more parents and many more phones. Way back, we began Bais Sefer Ohel Corona woefully ill-equipped for what was to come. We had two parents, one house phone, one cell phone for each parent, a cheapo talk-only family cell that was usually dead in the kitchen drawer, and a phone for our oldest.

Problem numero uno was that every child in the house needed his or her own phone to “attend” school via conference call. Numero dos was that neither cell held a call in our neighborhood. In order for a call to go through, we needed to drive down the main drag in town and turn off near an empty ballfield and then hold the phone up at a tilted angle hiiiigh above our heads, all while murmuring pesukim from kapitlach vav, reish, yud, zayin, and nun of Tehillim.

When I called the phone’s service provider, the agent said accusingly, “Well, that’s a very popu-layy-ted area! What do you expect?” Well… how about ensuring my phone has service without my having to move to rural Maine?

On the very first day of lockdown, we realized we had a problem. There were eight students at home who needed to call into conferences simultaneously. The seminary girl smugly turned to her parents: “Seeeeee??? I really do need my own phone!” Touché. She would now get her own phone. One down. The pre-1A child would get the house phone, as it was clearest. Two down. One child’s rebbi had everything prerecorded, so he could call when a different child finished. Three down.

The sixth grader was locking herself in her room to listen, so she could take the family phone that drained battery faster than it charged; it would stay plugged in on her desk. Spotty service wasn’t a problem in her case, as more often than not her conference call was “experiencing technical difficulties” and shut down anyway. Four down.

Next, we discovered that Tatty’s cell worked outside on the back porch facing north at a very precise angle. If no one touched the phone, it might hold on to the call. It was worth a shot, so the third grader bundled up in a coat and scarf (yes, it was May, but it was 47 degrees outside, thanks to global warming), gathered his various booklets and seforim, and set up shop in the corner of the porch. That made five. The 20-year-old was requested to please relinquish her phone for an hour and a half for the mesivta bochur, and Tatty ran out to buy two more cell phones.

We had this. Piece o’ cake.

Til it wasn’t.

The seminary girl’s new phone didn’t work. She went back to exchange it. Still didn’t work. While driving out to Oak Street one morning to pick up lunches for the student body of Bais Sefer Ohel Corona she discovered that as soon as she turned onto Oak, her call went through.

Next thing we know she’s calling excitedly: “Do you need the lunches right now? ’Cuz I’m just gonna park here on Oak and listen to Mrs. Klinghoffer’s class. Then there’s a yom iyun with some guest speakers, I can come home after that, at 4:30. It’s fine if the kids eat then, right?”

Things seemed to be looking slightly more optimistic, besides the issue of not enough parents to go around. The three youngest elementary school children needed a parent with them at all times. It was impossible for them to hear what was going on with 25 other children vying for the rebbi’s attention and forgetting to mute themselves.

Every ten minutes the rebbi would mute all the boys and say, “Boys, please go to a quiet place, and please take the phones off speaker! There’s too much background noise and it’s too hard for Rebbi to teach with all the noise!” Go to a quiet place? Really? Do I have eight separate silent places so that each kid can hunker down?

The dining room table became the six-year-old’s makom kavuah. The ninth grader got the study and the eighth grader got his room. The older girls were told to take the basement and Figure! It! Out! themselves. I started putting the baby to sleep at 11:00 at night so he would sleep until 11:00 the next morning and not disturb the kids on the phone and I could give the school kids my attention. Yes, really, and please stop judging. Desperate times call for desperate measures, friends.

So pre-1A kid is at the dining room table, second grader is at the kitchen table, third grader is bundled up on the porch. Mommy is running between the three, repeating everything the rebbi says because it’s too noisy on the conference, and they’re all saying, “Ma! I can’t heeear!”

I show the third grader how to unmute himself when the rebbi calls on him and run inside to the second grader, whose class is up to Krias Shema. The rebbi calls out, “I only hear two or three boys!” Well, yes, because the second I unmute my son, we’ll hear, “It’s very noisy, everyone needs to be in a quiet plaaaace…..”

Suddenly the third grader comes running inside. The rebbi had just said, “Pinny Itzkowitz, are you on?” and he unmutes and calls out “YES!” The rebbi says, “Gevaldig, please read pasuk gimmel!” and suddenly the call drops. He’s waving Tatty’s phone, screaming, “Fast! Call back! It’s my turn! Faaaast!!”

I grab the boy and shove him into the coat closet, the only unoccupied space, but not before the pre-1A rebbi pleads loudly, “Please, pleease, I’m asking that everyone go off speaker or go to a quiet place!” That was directed at us. At the same time the mesivta bochur scurries out of the study hissing, “Shaaaaaa! It’s too noisy! It’s so embarrassing! Everyone can hear! It’s dysfunctional!”

By the time second seder begins, this boy has determined that the best place to be is locked into the car (not the car that’s parked on Oak Street, the minivan sitting in the driveway) and that’s where he has been ever since, for all three sedorim every day.

Since homeschooling has begun, we’ve bought four new phones. We’ve bought out all the prizes in Five Below and bought jackpot prizes as well, for those kids who call every day. We go to seven different drop-off points each Sunday to drop off the previous week’s work packets and pick up the new ones. We go to two rebbeim on Friday mornings to pick up parshah booklets and newsletters.

The rebbeim and morahs have never worked so hard in all their years (one of our sons’s rebbeim speaks to every boy in the class daily!). We are exhausted. If I get one more homeschooling meme sent to my phone, I’ll screeeeeam. Hear me well, friends, I don’t need memes. My life is one big meme!

I know we are so blessed. Ben porat Yosef, as our Moroccan neighbor always reminds me. And yet — am I the only one who has the surreal feeling that my life has become one big Kichels?

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 695)

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